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Editorial & Column


The Bungled Case For Independence


May 1, 2003
Copyright © 2003 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

The Independence Party has historically handicapped itself in Puerto Rico by saddling its case with failed Socialist dogma and reflex anti-Americanism. No cause in the Caribbean can succeed under the crushing weight of those twin burdens, and the sooner they are shed, the brighter prospects for independence will be. Socialism has proved, on a worldwide basis, to be a formula for economic blight, frequently accompanied by painful sacrifices in human freedom and dignity.

Less obvious is the cost of hostility to the U.S. This impractical and totally unnecessary tactic is self-defeating for the following reasons:

  • American history is in itself a natural ally and advocate for the right to independence and that is a resource to be cultivated, not alienated.
  • The U.S.A. is the world’s foremost power and no small Caribbean nation can hope to succeed either economically or politically with leaders and policies that are committed to enmity against America.
  • The emerging political influence of the Hispanic population in the U.S. is a potential, strong support for the independence cause, since the various elements--Mexican, Dominican, Cuban, etc. all come from independent nations with automatic sympathy for that cause.
  • The post Iraq war international climate will predictably bring new pressure on the U.S. to look and act scrupulously non-colonial. For P.R. to remain conspicuously a colony is an anachronism calling for remedy.
  • One-half the island’s population now lives on the U.S. mainland, creating close interwoven ties with America that are a natural support system.

None of these potentially positive factors can be effectively harnessed for the independence cause as long as its leaders and policies are burdened by a reflex anti-Americanism.That tactic--pursued by Independentistas for the past 100 years--has fruitlessly tried to make an artificial foe out of what is actually their most needed friend. One result is persistent failure to receive more than 5% of the public vote either in plebiscite or general elections. That failure to win popular support then becomes the most quoted argument against independence.

Of course, anybody who knows the island knows that the sentiment for independence is much higher than 5%, and could be close to 20% of the populace, including a probable 90% in the current leadership structure of the Popular Democratic Party (PDP). But rather than waste their vote in a losing cause, many advocates of independence simply choose to hide their vote in the PDP, knowing that that will have the effect of blocking a strong majority for statehood and thereby keep the door open to the possibility of eventual independence.

It’s relevant to note that historically the powerful emotional pull of independence has frequently outweighed and overpowered a host of more practical considerations like economic necessity, military risk, and even an initial lack of majority support. There is no better example of this than the American Revolution. Back in 1776, public opinion in the American colonies was evenly divided in a stalemate. One-third was loyal to the British colonial power, one-third was for independence, and one-third was noncommittal. (Objectively analyzed, that is remarkably close to the present split of sentiments in Puerto Rico.) What broke the stalemate and precipitated the American Revolution was the heavy-handed tax policies of the British Crown, which provided a tangible abuse that everybody could relate to and became the rallying point that converted the noncommittal to active support for armed revolt.

Here’s where the direct comparison breaks down, because instead of oppressively taking tax money out of Puerto Rico, the U.S. annually pours $19 billion dollars of American taxpayers’ money into Puerto Rico. This massive infusion of federal funds has neutralized colonial resentment with economic convenience, and thus deprived the independence movement of the kind of irritating abuse that has been the catalyst for most revolutions. In effect, U.S. largesse has bought a passive silence of acquiescence on the island. But that is not to be confused with any active enthusiasm for patriotic allegiance to the U.S., which is notably lacking in Puerto Rico, particularly in the upper circles of the current local government.

Beyond that, the powerful, emotional appeal of independence remains persistent and predominant throughout the island, despite years of colonial rule. This surfaces most notably in a widespread rejection of American identity, language, and patriotic zeal. Paradoxically, even the most fervent statehooders feel the need to continually assert the primacy of their Puerto Ricanness, and they hesitate to be too overtly pro American, lest they be scornfully labeled Piti-Yanqui. All of which can be traced back to the failure of the U.S. Congress to back up their 1917 technical granting of U.S. citizenship with the policies and emotional fuel that would have made islanders feel and be fully American.

In this vacuum of less than full membership in America, Puerto Ricans have simply taken the most logical course, which is to cling to the separate identity they already had. You don’t give up something for nothing. The net result is that strong feelings of separate nationalism permeate all layers of island society. Independence is the only status that addresses that vital reality.

Concomitantly, the two rival status alternatives of statehood and commonwealth have, in a sense, exhausted themselves in an evenly matched struggle, resulting in a paralytic equality whose chief product is endless debate and discord. The evenness of this deadlock guarantees that there will never be any clearly decisive majority for either one, which translates to terminal indecision. Well-meaning plebiscites only end up repeatedly proving that the island cannot make up its mind about what it really wants, and this provides the negligent U.S. Congress with a convenient excuse for inaction. This is a sad merry-go-round that is going nowhere.

So, ironically, the case for independence gains by default from the demonstrated failure of either statehood or commonwealth to command decisive support, either on the island or in the U.S. Congress. And while both statehood and enhanced commonwealth face predictable opposition in Congress, independence is the one status mandate that the U.S. would be obliged to quickly and generously grant. In fact, from the U.S. point of view, it will probably be less traumatic and less expensive to finance Puerto Rican independence than to face the daunting prospect of trying to make the island an integral part of America--something the island has resisted during its 100 years of colonial control. From many points of view, independence for Puerto Rico emerges as the path of least resistance for the U.S., and a sure path to the kind of international approval the U.S. needs today.

Thus the big bungle of the independence movement has been their misguided efforts to make the U.S. appear as an exploitive villain instead of concentrating on the emotional appeal of a small nation striving for its freedom. It’s pointless to try to label the U.S. a ‘bad colonialist’ when there is considerable evidence to prove that the U.S. has been a remarkably good and generous colonialist. Admitting that does not alter the outmoded and unsatisfactory nature of colonial status in the modern world. That is what can garner the widespread outside support and pressure for action that could bring on independence.

Let it be noted that the islandwide tendency of all parties to promote separate nationalism without mustering the courage to graduate to independence, is a distractive dalliance--a tantalizing tease without fruition. For Puerto Rico, independence needs either a passionate embrace or a decisive rejection in favor of something else that holds better promise. In other words, get on with it, or get over it, and move on.

Garry Hoyt lived and worked in Puerto Rico from 1955 until 1980. He resides in Rhode Island and maintains strong ties with Puerto Rico.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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